“Black women have always been vulnerable to violence in this country and have long been judged as having ‘no selves to defend’” writes abolitionist Mariame Kaba in a 2019 op-ed.
In the op-ed, Kaba mentions Celia, an enslaved woman who killed her rapist enslaver in 1855, who Missouri law determined could not claim self-defense because she was his property. Indeed, this history looms over the recent incident involving Carlisha Hood, a 35-year-old mother who was assaulted by 32-year-old Jeremy Brown in a Chicago restaurant.
It is deeply troubling that Hood and her courageous 14-year-old son were initially charged with murder following their act of self-defense, and it serves as a stark reminder of the immense hurdles that Black women encounter in the aftermath of gender-based violence.
More so than other women in the U.S., Black women are disproportionately subjected to intimate partner violence, homicide due to gun violence, and sexual harassment or assault. A 2019 report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that non-Hispanic Black women experienced the highest rate of firearm-related homicide among women.
Worse, they bear the additional burden of criminalization. As per the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, a staggering number of incarcerated women, with a significant portion being Black, have endured the torturous ordeal of either sexual or intimate partner violence. Black women who are victims of violence are thus victimized twice: first by offenders because of their gender, and secondly by the criminal justice system because of their race.
The June 18 cellphone footage of Carlisha Hood’s attack shows the realities many Black women victims suffer. Social media footage shows Jeremy Brown threatening Hood before punching her in the face and head. The assault continues until her son enters the store and shoots Brown, which initial videos circulating the internet conveniently did not show. Instead of recognizing her as a victim, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) charged Hood and her son with first-degree murder and delinquency of a minor.
In addition to these charges, initial reports suggested that Hood had told her son to get the gun and shoot Brown, leading social media users to chastise the mother for supposedly endangering her child. This portrayal of Hood’s experience egregiously overlooks her as a vulnerable individual deserving of safeguarding, instead unjustly labeling her as a wrongdoer deserving of confinement.
These characterizations are rooted in stereotypes of Black mothers as “angry Black women,” and “failed mammies,” who require brute force and confinement to control their presumably dangerous behavior.
“Never in a million years would I have imagined being brutally attacked, beaten and then arrested,” said Hood in a press conference following the attack. This sentiment is valid, given that advocates against gender-based violence suggest that enforcement of laws such as the Violence Against Women Act, are supposed to be a strong means of recourse for victims.
Yet, in a disheartening turn of events, legislation of this nature emboldens law enforcement to apprehend victims like Hood, even in cases where they possess a valid firearm license. Therefore, though the Cook County State Attorney Kim Foxx’s office dismissed all charges, Hood must still navigate the aftermath of this ordeal including a lawsuit against the city of Chicago.
When we draw a line from Celia to Carlisha Hood, we can see that Black women should consider not only laws around gender-based violence but also laws on self-defense as important political issues. The judicial system continues to criminalize Black women who claim self-defense, even in states with “Stand Your Ground” laws on the books, as revealed by the stories of women like Marissa Alexander, Siwatu-Salama Ra, and Cyntoia Brown. Ultimately, Black women are subject to an “exclusionary politics of protection,” where they can not expect the law to protect them, but they can expect it to prosecute them.
The unjust treatment Carlisha Hood and her son experienced exposes how neither the public nor the law perceives Black women as worthy of protection. If we continue to ignore this reality, Black women victims, who already face disproportionately higher rates of violence, will also continue to experience disproportionately higher rates of incarceration.
If we want to see a future in which Black women victims of violence receive justice more readily than they receive repercussions, we have to recognize how their experiences were mutually shaped by race, gender, and other factors. Therefore, to stand in solidarity with Black women like Hood, we must refuse to engage in discourse that reinforces negative stereotypes and also demand justice for wrongly incarcerated Black women.
Such support involves promoting the work of organizations such as the Black Women’s Defense League, Sisters Unchained, and Black Women’s Blueprint. Supporting rather than attacking Black women who act in self-defense is a step toward justice for all women. This is particularly important given that, aside from indigenous women, Black women are most affected by the contradictions of our criminal justice system.
Melissa Brown is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Santa Clara Univeristy, where she does research on how Black people advance society through their relationship with digital technology. Her writing can be found at blackfeminisms.com.